In D.C., independent voters don’t really get to play the game come election time.
Not only that, the current system allows the dominant Democratic Party’s primary candidates to proceed to the general election winning only a plurality of votes. It will likely happen again on April 1 in the historically determinant Democratic primary for mayor.
These are separate problems. But there may be a single solution.
Due to overwhelming Democratic registration at nearly 75 percent, winners of local elections are decided in the dominant party’s primary election. The only exception is a requirement that two of four At-Large D.C. Council seats be held by a non-majority-party. This provision is intended to prevent absolute single-party control but is both easily and commonly overridden by Democrats changing affiliation to “independent” as if changing socks.
Despite being primary participation outcasts, slightly more than 17 percent of the District’s registered voters have selected “No Party” as their political affiliation. This reduces voting eligibility to general elections, being prohibited from any party’s “closed primary” election.
The percentage of independent registrations would undoubtedly skyrocket if D.C. election rules were revised to eliminate participation restrictions. Independent voters are a fast-growing phenomenon in places with broader participation rules. In addition, nearly half of Americans now self-identify as “independents” – even if mostly in attitude while retaining a party preference – an all-time high in 25 years of Gallup polling.
Of course, both local Democratic Party officials and incumbents are not eager for any change weakening the incentive to register with the party. Why would they? There is no upside to surrendering the power of a determinant process exclusively involving party registrants or offering other parties a potential path to victory.
It’s partly understandable, in reference to the “open primary” system used in Virginia and other states where voters are not required to register by party and independents may vote in any party primary. Even those registered with a political party may vote in another party’s primary upon making a declaration they intend to support that party in the general election. There is an argument for letting political parties restrict primary voting to the party-registered. This prevents the possibility a party would have to “associate” with a winning candidate that did not adhere to particular political positions.
The rules for voting in primary elections vary by state and there are differing systems in place. And, yes, various protocols lead to multiple types of strategic mischief. In a fully “open” primary, for example, competing party members switch over to vote for candidates perceived weaker as general election opponents, especially if their own party’s primary is already sewn-up by a strong or single candidate or popular incumbent.
Neither “open” nor “semi-closed” primary systems that allow only independents to choose a party primary are perfect alternatives. Another option, determining a winner by ranking preference in “automatic run-off” primaries is also subject to strategic “gaming” by voters and introduces an unduly complex “poker game” mentality into the process.
D.C.’s dilemma might best be remedied by “non-partisan” elections. All candidates would compete in a single primary open to all voters, with the top two candidates proceeding to the general election.
One or both of the top two candidates might still win only a plurality. All voters, however, would have the opportunity to choose among all candidates, with a final selection available to voters in the general election. After all, no system is perfect.
A non-partisan system would provide for the least political disruption in a city with single party dominance. It would yield freedom from needing to register with the dominant party to attain electoral equity while also requiring candidates to compete side-by-side, as we already do for special elections.
It may be time to allow D.C. residents to register and fully participate in election outcomes without forcing affiliation with a political party.
It could be the best possible first-step election reform most appropriate for D.C.